“If anyone believes that holy Mary is not the mother of God (theotokos), he has no share in the divine inheritance,” wrote St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “If anyone says that Christ passed through the virgin as through a tube but was not formed in her in both a divine and human manner, divine without the assistance of man, human in accordance with the law of pregnancies, he likewise is ungodly.”
Those are strong words, and if I had heard them while still a fundamentalist Protestant, I would have been scandalized. A close relative once referred to Mary as a “biological vessel” used by God, and at one time I would have agreed. But now I joyfully confess the truth that Mary is, indeed, the Mother of God. What changed my mind? Many things, including the study of Church history and the development of theology and doctrine, but mostly a deeper understanding of Scripture.
Today’s readings are not, of course, presented as a defense of the theotokos. Rather, within the liturgical celebration, they are divine brushstrokes that together create and write an icon of the Blessed Mother.
One of those brushstrokes is the word “bless.” It’s worth noting that the first reading heard on New Year’s Day is about God’s blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you!” God wishes to shine his face upon us, which means he extends an offer of intimate and holy communion.
And how did that blessing come about? Through another brushstroke, that of “birth.” God sent his Son, St. Paul explained, “born of a woman, born under the Law.” God blessed man by becoming man, and the blessing of the Incarnation was through the power of the Holy Spirit and the faith of Mary. The birth of the Son of God, St. Paul declared, had a most incredible goal: “so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The only Son of God by nature became man so men can become sons of God by another brushstroke, that of grace, which is God’s own divine life. This profound truth is condensed by Paul into a phrase that captures the saving work of the Trinity: “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’”
The Catechism expressed this Trinitarian work and Mary’s perfect cooperation with grace in this beautiful way: “Mary, the all-holy ever-virgin Mother of God, is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time. For the first time in the plan of salvation and because his Spirit had prepared her, the Father found the dwelling place where his Son and his Spirit could dwell among men” (No. 721).
This dwelling place among men has a particular abode, another brushstroke: “heart.” Mary, in pondering the birth of her Son, “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51). The heart, in Scripture, is not merely a place of emotions or feelings, but is the deepest, most intimate part of one’s being. Mary’s physical role has eternal meaning and value because of her faith, flowing from a heart completely given to God. “Even her maternal relationship would have done Mary no good,” wrote St. Augustine, “unless she had borne Christ more happily in her heart than in her flesh.”
Mary is not a biological vessel, but the Holy Mother of God. Our response should be that of the shepherds, glorifying God, for he has blessed us with grace, peace and salvation.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.